Thursday, September 28, 2023

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck


It is impossible to be in this high spinal country without giving thought to the first men who crossed it, the French explorers, the Lewis and Clark men. We fly it in five hours, drive it in a week, dawdle it is I was doing in a month or six weeks. But Lewis and Clark and their party started in Saint Louis in 1804 and returned in 1806. And if we get to thinking we are men, we might remember that in the two and half years of pushing through wild and unknown country to the Pacific Ocean and then back, only one man died and only one deserted. And we get sick if the milk delivery is late and nearly die of heart failure if there is an elevator strike. What must these men have thought as a really new world unrolled—or was the progress so slow that the impact was lost? I can't believe they were unimpressed. Certainly their report to the government is an excited and an exciting document. They were not confused. They knew what they had found.

The subtitle of this volume is In Search of America.

Tuska considers Steinbeck a Western genre author and I am grateful for that as it allows me to squeeze in this lolling perceptive work.

The premise of the “nonfiction” volume is the author sets off in his camper van Rocinante along with his poodle Charley, to drive across the nation. Take his time. See some sights. Talk to some people.

There is no clear plan, just a simple dictate of “Let’s hit the road.”

There are some literary “scholars” who quibble that some of the reported episodes didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way Steinbeck presents.

I care not a whit.

A fine observation, be it in a volume of Trollope, a factual report from the North Pole, or in between the covers of pulp fiction is a fine observation.

Jacques Barzun’s histories have sung to me, but so has Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Fine fodder is fine fodder.

What resonates here, be it fact or not, vibrates with the facts of a life lived, of observation that strikes a chord with a reader who has seen, encountered and thought such things himself.

The observations that soar, at least to this reader, are not the nuts-and-bolts facts but the heart and soul statements.

I wonder why it is that that when I plan a route too carefully it goes to pieces, whereas if I blunder along in blissful ignorance aimed in a fancied direction I get through with no trouble.


On such a trip as mine, there is so much to see and to think about that event and thought set down as they occurred would roil and stir like a slow-cooking-minestrone. There are map people whose joy is to lavish more attention on the sheets of colored paper than on the colored land rolling by. I have listened to accounts by such travelers in which every road number was remembered, every mileage recalled, and every little countryside discovered. Another kind of traveler requires to know in terms of maps exactly where he was pinpointed every moment, as though there is some kind of safety in black and red lines, and dotted indications and squirming blue of lakes and the shadings that indicated mountains. It was not so with me. I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.

I could quote on.

But the book deserves its own reading.

And we deserve our own journeys.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Restless Gun “Duel at Lockwood”


This 2 season Western series ran from 1957-1959 starring John Payne as ex-gunfighter Vint Bonner.

The series is carved in that mini-morality tale of the week vein that many a mature Western tale of the period was forged.

In the first episode we see Vint having to deal with a young buck wannabe gunhawk played by Vic Morrow.

The writing is fine, the story arc predictable, but the short running time makes it all go down nice and easy.

The stand-out here is Morrow’s sniveling snarling gunhawk.

Not a bad way to spend 30 minutes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Guild by Ed Gorman


“He’ll probably try to kill us both. Frank Cord, I mean.”

“You scared?”

 “A little.”

Guild said, “That's about how much I’m scared, too.”

Here we have, to my eye, a bit of a curiosity. It is Tuska’s pick for the best of this author, and there is indeed craft here. Pacing, setting, all the elements are here, and yet…I find the entire affair a bit toothless.

A bit, “I’ve mapped out all the discrete parts that should make a fine Western tale, now let’s Insert Slot A into Hole B.”

Our protagonist is a troubled bounty-hunter, his trouble is outlined for us at the beginning of the novel.

We are told the incident haunts him.

Beyond a mention of the incident here and there I never felt any haunting.

Truthfully, I never felt that any character here was alive. They all seem dress-up simulacra from other more vital novels.

We have confrontations simply because this part of the plot demands it.

We have passionless relationships that we are told are meaningful.

It seems strange to find so little to like in a novel that is clearly written with craft.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the elements—it is all in the stew itself. All a bit watery.

Then again, perhaps the fault is all mine for failing to see the art here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Have We Dimmed the Light in the Forest by Mark Hatmaker


“We must be polite. If we look at the skin of a white man, he said, you can see how thin and weak it is. Even such a small thing as words will bruise and cut it open.”—Conrad Richter, The Light in the Forest.

That quote is from the Pulitzer-Prize winning author’s 1953 novel, The Light in the Forest.

The novel is a tale of the Eastern Woodland frontier, particularly the story of a young white captive who has lived with Natives for years and is being returned “home.”

Before we plunge on, I must get the reader-rection out of the way. As fiction, I found it a bit stilted, a bit too Rousseau “Noble Savage” in dialogue but in all other particulars a fascinating read.

Richter has done his research here, there was a marked number of “white” captives who, once “freed,” escaped time and time again to return to what one would presume to be a harsher life, a harsher culture, one with less amenities, and yet…

The historical record gives us tale after tale of these dissatisfied “return to civilization” citizens. It was so rife and common Benjamin Franklin remarked upon the phenomenon.

For his tale Richter plunged heavily into firsthand resources, particularly Heckewelder and Zeisberger.

In more recent times, Sebastian Junger delves into the subject in his masterful Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

Let’s allow Richter to set the stage for what he was trying to do with the novel. This is from his preface.

The author wants to acknowledge further his gratitude to those readers who have sensed what he was trying to do--not to write historical novels but to give an authentic sensation of life in early America. In records of the Eastern border, the author was struck by the numbers of returned white captives who tried desperately to run away from their flesh-and-blood families and return to their Indian foster homes and the Indian mode of life. As a small boy he himself had tried to run off to Indian country without the benefit of ever having lived among the savages.

Not that the novel represents the novelist's particular beliefs or opinions. He can understand and sympathize with either side. His business is to be fair to them both. If the novel has another purpose, it is to point out that in the pride of our American liberties, we’re apt to forget that already we've lost a good many to civilization. The American Indians once enjoyed far more than we. Already two-hundred years ago, when restrictions were comparatively with us, our ideals and restrained manner of existence repelled the Indian. I thought that perhaps if we understood how these first Americans felt toward us even then and toward our white way of life, we might better understand the adverse, if perverted, view of us by some Africans, European, and Asian peoples today.

If ideals and restraint repelled then, imagine applying that vision to the 21st-century now when many do not participate in life—we allow tiny screens to stand in as council fires, celebration dances, and face-to-face interaction—yet still “feel” strongly for ideals that can survive in our absence, where the clickety clack of a keyboard comment or thumbing an emoji icon “satisfies” as participatory exchange.

Richter, Junger and others are telling us that often much of what we may see as boons are chosen bars on a prison cell.

He opens the novel with this extract from Wordsworth.

Shades of the prison-house begin to close,

Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy.”—Wordsworth

Richter asks us, to pay attention, to question all aspects of our “civilized” life to determine, “Is this really a boon, or is it mere fashionable ideal? A benefit or another brick in a self-constructed cell?”

To be clear—the question is never useful in the abstract spirit…

What’s wrong with society today is…”

Or in the other-directed spirit…

The problem with Ted is, he needs to…”

Questioning our own prison-houses our own prison cells, our own habits, well, these are the only questions that matter, as these are the only ones we can give answer to as to whether they are useful or not, and we are the only ones who can choose to tunnel out of this or that circumstance if we deem them idealized restraints.

Let us look to a few mundane examples from the novel to give a flavor for how these questions may provide an escape key if one is needed.

The boy was about fifteen years old. He tried to stand very straight and tall when he heard the news, but inside of him everything had gone black. It wasn't that he couldn't endure pain. In summer he would put a stone hot from the fire on his flesh to see how long he could stand it. In winter he would sit in the icy river until his Indian father smoking on the bank said he could come out. It made him strong against any hardship that would come to him, his father said.

To be clear I do not think such practices are necessary, but I do find that practices of purposeful hardening/robustification can a long way towards the improvement of both the physical and mental character.

Notice, the novel’s example was not to improve cold tolerance or heat tolerance per se, but to teach “strength against hardship.”

I know many a cold shower practicer, many a sauna user who tout the health benefits yet still bitch about politics, traffic, and the most baffling of all, the weather.

One would assume that robustifying to hot and cold was intended to robustify beyond the mere Instagram game of the practice.

It is either of value, or it is not.

Seems integration to the whole is the thing.

Seems the Spirit is the thing.

Never would he go to this enemy land. How could he exist among a race of aliens with such slouching ways and undignified speech! How could he live and breathe and not be an Indian!

Slouching ways and undignified speech are hallmarks of many of the accounts from true journals.

Thought Experiment: If we possessed a time machine, would we expect to see more slouching then or now?

More dignified speech, then or now?

I shall lift my head from my smartphone after keying in my dignified emoiji and ponder the question.

The Indian and deer would wither and die in such confinement, but the white men flourished in these stale sickly air of his house like fleas in his wall and borers in the cabin logs. He could arise refreshed from a suffocating bed of feathers high as a turkey roost off his mother, the Earth. He could even survive that instrument of torture called a bolster, which bent white people from the straightness of the Indian, curving their necks forward like a cranes.

I offer, how many complaints of a poor night’s sleep are relics of the “necessities of sleep” pillow configuration, blanket weight, mattress tone etc.

Not saying they are a net bad, just saying how many are surprised what a weekend’s backcountry camping does to the usual around the coffeepot, “I slept for shit last night” complaints.

Later Andy Goff, the shoemaker, arrived. The tailor’s fitting and fussing had been trial enough, the clothes he made were ugly as Alec’s. But the shoemaker was worse. The boots he pounded out there like half-hollowed logs. They gripped the boy's feet, wedged his toes, cramped his ankles. He felt that he stood in millstones. How could white men endure such things when they might run light and free and moccasins?

I know a man, a Good Man, who wears combat boots day-in, day-out. Be it for fashion cache or a blinkered, “I’m tactical ready, man!” I do not know.

I also am privy that he has complaints of foot problems, that he self-confesses to running and jumping poorly.

Again, no argument against footwear. I wear shoes.

Just reminding us how wide we should ask our questions about possible prison-houses.

On the seventh morning he must sit, a captive between his father and Aunt Kate in what they called the Great Spirit’s lodge, with the strong scent of the white people and their clothing about him. The whites were very childish to believe that the God of the Whole Universe would stay in such a closed up and stuffy place. The Indians knew better--that the great spirit loved the freedom of woods and streams where the air blew pure, where the birds sang sweet, and nature made an endless bower of praying spots and worship places.

An idea that pops up in true accounts again and again. It sings to me, everywhere is a praying spot.

Everywhere is a Gratitude Spot.

Everywhere is a Seeing Spot.

Each Step is a Sermon.

It is novels such as this one, true accounts such as those I have mentioned that fuel my own Stepping Sermon.

Be it Old School Rough n Tumble Combat, Old School Physical Culture Conditioning, every day is THIS day, or even my living out my boyhood Tarzan jones by looking to real ones who lived in contact with life lived raw.

We must ask our own questions.

We must experiment with life outside of the prison-house to determine the answers to those questions.

Keep those habits that sustain.

And kick off those that don’t fit like a pair of millstone boots.

Mabitsiar’u Pab’i tua’su Pats’i! [Comanche: Respect/Honor, My Brothers & Sisters!]

A Frontier Phrase Worth Resurrecting: “He Bubbles Pure"

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